Anthony McCargar’s coltish black kitten Beelzebub (“Bub”) is far less vicious than his name suggests. The whiskered guard stands in the doorway that leads to McCargar’s underground heavy metal production label and DIY studio, Death Portal. It is down there, among the stacks of CDs, McCargar’s handmade Frankenstein taxidermy stage art, a wall of amps and Rolling Rock that McCargar spends hours of his free time listening to the howls and growls of 50 to 100 metal bands from around the world per day.
“I give them as much time as (studios) gave me – 10 to 15 seconds,” he said.
McCargar has been operating Death Portal since the late 1990s and is one of the few – if only – labels in Durango. He represents about 35 bands and specializes in small runs and limited-edition releases. McCargar’s space can be converted into a DIY studio if someone wants to record, but the bulk of the work is production-related.
“I promote bands from all over the world,” McCargar said. “I generate as much merch as I can. I collect bands, edit their CDs and their layout, send it off to a production company, or try to do it in-house depending on what they want.”
The picking and fiddle-playing of most Durango country, folk and bluegrass groups do not fit the brute force, heavy distortion and pentagrams of Death Portal. There is an abundance of string bands, but a lack of local labels to support them. Durango may be a music town with access to nearby music hubs such as Albuquerque and Denver, but the community is still isolated.
“You would be kind of nuts to be like, ‘I want a career in music. I’m going to move to Durango,’” said guitar and mandolin player of local bluegrass outfit StillHouse Junkies, Fred Kosak.
The lack of resources means bands do everything themselves. Such is the case with psych and desert rock group The Crags. The Crags released their latest record, “Bent,” in early 2017, which cost about $5,000 to record and produce. Lead singer Tracy Ford said that is about as cheap as it can get unless bands record themselves.
“I’m the most tech-savvy person in this whole band, and that’s not saying much,” Ford said.
The lion’s share of the $5,000 was spent on recording, which they paid a local studio to rent by the hour.
“We go in completely prepared,” Ford said.
It’s typical for bands to have all their songs dialed in before hitting the record button to save on the hourly rates. The Crags then outsourced CD production (Ford made the album art) to a company that also digitally distributed their music and provides analytics to see who’s listening. All the money the band makes from gigs and merchandise goes back into a band bank account.
“We all have day jobs; we are all a lot older than the average musician. We are not doing this for money,” Ford said. “I’m in a totally different space from young people out there who are trying to make it.”
The StillHouse Junkies trio – Kosak, Alissa Wolf (fiddle) and Cody Tinnin (bass) – take their music careers more seriously than their whiskey.
“Our goal is to go big. All three of us are committed,” Wolf said.
Their dedication can be seen and heard. The musicians quickly find the same wavelength in the first few notes of the first song of nightly band practice. The group meets seven days a week, even if they have a gig, for two or three hours for rehearsal in Tinnin’s courtyard studio so he doesn’t have to travel with his boat-size bass. StillHouse Junkies will have played 16 gigs by the end of August alone.
“We try to expedite the 10-year grind by busting ass,” Tinnin said.
The young band formed in early 2017 and released their first record, “Over The Pass,” in April. The group launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover the costs of making the record and raised more than their $10,000 goal. A large chunk of that money went back to the donors as crowdfunding rewards.
“When we were telling people, ‘If you donate to our Kickstarter, you’ll get a T-shirt and hat,’ we didn’t have any (expletive) T-shirts and hats,” Tinnin said. “Without crowdfunding, we would not have a record, we would not have any merch.”
The group recorded at local studio Scooter’s Place and sent the songs to Grammy Award-winning audio engineer David Glasser in Boulder to master. Since releasing the record, the band manages all the day-to-day tedium of booking their busy gig schedule themselves. They stay organized through a group text that starts at 8 a.m. and doesn’t stop until they meet for practice.
StillHouse Junkies does not have the help of someone like McCargar to take any of the work off their hands. But McCargar still has a full-time job to support himself financially. The small basement operation is a labor of love, and it’s this attitude that allows Death Portal to exist.
“You almost need someone who is a retired trustfund-er with money to burn and doesn’t have to worry about profit because it would be a tough proposition,” Kosak said. “The arts in general in this country are not super-profitable.”
If an opportunity ever does arise for StillHouse Junkies to join a label, they would happily sign.
“Anything that would take stuff off of our plate so we can put more energy into the music part of it, that is the end-game,” Kosak said.